Forgotten Gem: Cool Hand Luke is the man

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Cool Hand Luke – 1967

Director Stuart Rosenberg
Starring Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Strother Martin, Dennis Hopper, Wayne Rogers, Jo Van Fleet, J.D. Cannon, Clifton James, Harry Dean Stanton, Lou Antonio, Morgan Woodward, Joe Don Baker, Ralph Waite, Joy Harmon, Anthony Zerbe, Luke Askew
Screenplay Donn Pearce, Frank Pierson

“Sometimes nothin’ is a pretty cool hand.”

In many ways a spiritual predecessor to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Cool Hand Luke is one of the landmark films of the stellar career of Paul Newman.  Getting thrown into a prison chain gang after the relatively minor offense of cutting the tops off of parking meters while drunk, Luke Jackson (Newman) acts as if it were the only place he ever could have ended up.  After a military career filled with accolades but no promotions, Jackson acts as if his life could end up in no other way.

As a study of incarceration in the 60’s, I am not sure how accurate it is.  One of the authors, Pearce, served time in several institutions himself.  As a buddy movie, it serves an important function of exemplifying the human spirit within the fellowship of others.  Indomitable is a word that comes to mind.

There are many unforgettable moments in the film, from the opening smile, through the fight between Luke and Dragline (Kennedy), the eggs, every one of the escape attempts and the ditch digging.  All of the scenes work within the context of the story and the characters and not as a showcase of some sort.

“Hey, hey.  Here he is, Boss, deader than hell but he won’t let go!”

An easy smile, even in the worst of times
An easy smile, even in the worst of times

Newman walks past the line of no return with no intention of looking back.  It is a nuanced role fraught with opportunities to skate, but he never does.  Something in Luke Jackson gives up before the first bell rings.  Something else will keep standing, even if he’s beat.  He’s a beautiful loser indeed.  He has a regular argument with the old man, or God, to us.  He believes that God is there, but perhaps just not there for him.  But he will never give up, or even stop smiling.

The prison warden and staff, of course, is an allegory for Satan and those doing his bidding, and the road work is the life of a the average stiff locked out of Eden.  We are here, only to be kept in line.

As Dragline, Oscar Winner Kennedy could be any one of us who is supposedly succeeding in our lot in life.  It takes someone like Luke, who never stops smiling, even with “a hand full of nothin'” to show what we are missing, and to give us hope.  With Jackson – as common a name as Jesus – Dragline and the others see a man who can perpetually turn the other cheek and always try to improve his situation, even if it means his life.  This provides inspiration and makes Dragline kind of like Simon-Peter in the end…like any of us could be.

The acting of the afore-mentioned is remarkable, to be sure, but the rest of the cast gives remarkable support.  Many actors that went on to have long and successful careers work right along side him, providing character with minimal lines.  The best of these, perhaps, is Harry Dean Stanton, who provides a double threat by singing most of the songs on the soundtrack.

cool-hand-luke-poster
A man without eyes

The Warden (Martin) and his staff, most prominently featuring the boss with no eyes (Woodward) are also filled with great character actors, like Cannon and Askew.  These actors add just a touch of personality, but, altogether form a wall of futility that seems impenetrable and porous at the same time.

This film cemented Newman’s legacy as an actor who could sell a movie by name alone.  There are almost no special effects, per se, but the vistas are grand, vast and miserable (for cast, that is).  Rosenberg’s career after Cool Hand Luke was uneven, if steady.  If there was another high point, it was The Pope of Greenwich Village.

The reason I list this movie as a Forgotten Gem is because of the dearth of people who know more about this film than the quote which will not be mentioned here.  If you want to know what the quote is, see the film for yourself.  You won’t regret it.

(***** out of *****)

 

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